Rate distortion theory describes how to communicate relevant information most efficiently over a channel with limited capacity. One of the many applications of rate distortion theory is bounded rational decision making, where decision makers are modeled as information channels that transform sensory input into motor output under the constraint that their channel capacity is limited. Such a bounded rational decision maker can be thought to optimize an objective function that trades off the decision maker’s utility or cumulative reward against the information processing cost measured by the mutual information between sensory input and motor output. In this study, we interpret a spiking neuron as a bounded rational decision maker that aims to maximize its expected reward under the computational constraint that the mutual information between the neuron’s input and output is upper bounded. This abstract computational constraint translates into a penalization of the deviation between the neuron’s instantaneous and average firing behavior. We derive a synaptic weight update rule for such a rate distortion optimizing neuron and show in simulations that the neuron efficiently extracts reward-relevant information from the input by trading off its synaptic strengths against the collected reward.

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